An Unadulterated Celebration

Joanna Biggs, A Life of One’s Own: Nine Women Writers Begin Again

Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 272pp, £18.99, ISBN 9781474621229

reviewed by Jennifer Thomson

I used to have the Woolfian ideal — money, and a room of my own. Now I have expensive childcare bills to pay, and that room is a nursery. Similar predicaments face the female writers of Joanna Biggs’ A Life of One’s Own: Nine Women Writers Begin Again. After Ted leaves, Sylvia is stuck trying to write what will become Ariel whilst caring for two tiny children; Toni sets up her desk in the middle of the house she makes with her two young sons, freshly divorced, so that ‘the writing could never take precedence over them’. There is no luxury of a pram in a hall for these women — the pram is in the centre of the room, the baby is crying loudly, and still they must write. Life weaves around them, shaping the type of art they create, the type of work that is possible.

A Life of One’s Own narrates the lives of eight canonical female writers with one chapter devoted to each: Mary Wollstonecraft, George Eliot, Zora Neale Hurston, Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir, Sylvia Plath, Toni Morrison and Elena Ferrante. The ninth figure is Biggs herself — the story of her divorce, the death of her mother and her transatlantic move to New York City interwoven throughout. What emerges from this is a harmony of female lives, of women who, across centuries and continents, have faced strikingly similar difficulties in crafting existences which allow them to think and create.

And what lives these women lead. Though familiar to many, Biggs gives these women’s stories new resonances when seen in conversation with one another. Mary Wollstonecraft, trekking through Scandinavia on her unmarried lover’s bidding with their illegitimate child in tow; Zora Neale Hurston, living the vibrancy of the Harlem Renaissance; Simone de Beauvoir, so very much more than just Sartre’s lover. The drama and vibrancy of their existence is so striking — why has no-one made a film about Mary Wollstonecraft’s life? Why did it take so long for Zora Neale Hurston to be ‘found’ and canonised? Sure, Toni Morrison gets the Nobel and Elena Ferrante becomes one of the most famous pseudonyms the literary world has ever known, but so much else about these writers has been forgotten or neglected. Biggs gives their lives — and their work, in nuanced close readings in each chapter — the attention and reverence they deserve.

The book is largely given over to the stories of these women, but more so than this, it is a love letter to reading. Biggs writes of shaking off the shackles of her formal literary education, and the liberation of allowing herself emotional reactions to these authors’ books. She describes the pleasure that she found in reading certain texts at certain moments in her life when she needed them most. It is a long time since I have read a book that made me want to read so many others. Indeed, it is so rare to read something that is such an unadulterated celebration. Just look, Biggs is saying quite simply, just look what these women managed to give us.

Thinking and writing is hard at the best of times, let alone in the tiny (physical and emotional) spaces that are often allowed women. That these women managed to create at all, let alone in the groundbreaking ways that they did, is remarkable. To say so is not to reduce them to their circumstances, just an unfortunate statement of fact. The commodification of feminism is such that its vocabulary has been hollowed out to nothing, so I cringe at pointing out that Biggs’ portrayal reminds us how inspirational these women were. I write this on a dying laptop, power cord lost in the detritus of my living room somewhere, sat at the kitchen table between a sticky high chair and a pile of laundry. To be taken into the lives of eight women who (with apologies for the cliché) wrote their own stories was a beautiful thing — not only inspiration, but comfort.

Jennifer Thomson is an academic based in the south-west of England.